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Conjuring the Internet: Art and Contemporary Magic

A look inside attempts to form community, cope, and learn about history and ourselves through art and crowdsourced patronage.
August 8, 2015, 12:00pm

Look No Evil, Look No Evil text, Problem Glyphs, by Eliza Gauger, image courtesy of the artist.

The internet is a dark temple—a hidden place where spirits linger and covens are free to gather. Or, at least it was in one particular mid-90s afternoon TV narrative about cyber wiccans and darknet satanists. Today, the internet is like any strip mall, representing the general common denominators of culture, even if translated (often) through the quirkiness of memes and the poorly-socialized bot-like qualities of social media #brands.

But just because there is no occult conspiracy behind the internet, does not mean that its magic is nonexistent. Back eddies to a larger flow exist, where strange networks are allowed to escape the monolithic gaze of culture. Magic finds its way into every generation, and the current distributed realities of today are no different.

One often feels forced to form opinions about the relationship between technology and magic through analogy. Any “reasonable person" knows that summoning demons is fiction—but flying robots that kill people using invisible beams of light are completely real. One way to talk about magic in this complicated terrain of reality and virtuality is from an academic standpoint, like at the recent conference, Haunted Machines, in which the “narratives of myth, magic and haunting around technology” are explored as narratives, using these theoretical gloves to maintain the barrier between fact and fiction.

But art allows one to get closer. Works like Joshua Madara’s Planetary Keys and Generative Sigil blend making with conjuring, taking the hypothesis that there could be a relationship between magic and technology to its proof-of-concept point, creating sigil-generating programs and symbolic computer interfaces in actuality, although the artist leaves the actual use of these objects open to interpretation.

And then there is the point at which the art simply begins to do magic. In certain instances, there is no need to create an interface between the technology and the magic, because they are one and the same. One day in 2013, artist Eliza Gauger offered, via Tumblr, to draw sigils in response to problems people submitted—a riff on a common ask-and-respond meme form popular on the social network. The response was overwhelming. Months later, with financial support from her audience via the crowdfunding site Patreon, Problem Glyphs was born.

Compass Mentis, Compass Mentis text, Problem Glyphs, by Eliza Gauger, image courtesy of the artist.

Each glyph is a line art drawing conjoining various themes in response to the issue at hand, rooted in a number of magical traditions. There is Greco-Roman imagery, references to scholarly interpretations of the Elder Futhark runes and other symbols both from articulated traditions, and those invented by Gauger. But the glyphs of the project are not so much a reference to magic-as-tradition, but as part of a longer tradition of creativity as magical practice. Gauger’s audience understands the Glyphs as magical images because that is how they function, not simply their inspiring aesthetic. Says Gauger:

"Magic" is demonstrably effective because systems of manipulating consciousness are always effective to a certain extent. Advertising and propaganda are two other examples that are completely non-supernatural but which have strong, measurable effects on human behavior while being completely intangible. You show someone a certain arrangement of symbols, and those symbols work on them.

The symbols do not exist in a dusty tome, secret knowledge only for adepts. They come to life in the Glyphs as Gauger imbues her artistic work. She describes this work, not unfamiliar to any artist or researcher, in the language of magic:

Generally the amount of effort or sacrifice one makes for any given spell is supposed to be roughly proportional to its success, right? Big prayers require big sacrifices. And that’s always been part of being the local witch, is that you do the legwork for your client. Any freelancer totally understands that dynamic. Drawing something is a form of magic, you're summoning form from void, and you're doing it with skills very few others have access to. So at the end of the "ritual" (drawing), I have proof that I did the ritual, which is the problem glyph itself. It’s like a receipt that I focused on this person's problem for them for however many hours, and applied my skillset and experience to it.

At least in this context, the internet is where this ritual can become manifest, and visible to the Glyphs’ audience. Via her livestream, her Patreon, her Tumblr, and other social feedback mechanisms, the work is made visible. In these online places people with experiences excised from the mainstream can meet and share the common languages and practices of their lives. These newly formed, powerful symbolic reactions end up being called, by exclusion from a hegemonic normality, “magic.” Gauger sees this experience spreading throughout the current generation:

In terms of the generational "zeitgeist" I think we are very much like the young people at the turn of the last century, who were emerging from the Victorian era into the Edwardian and then later the 1920s. Those young people were intensely into Spiritualism. While the Victorian era was all about the celebration of death, spiritualists in the 1900s-10s were obsessed with the afterlife, contacting ghosts, etc. […]  The confluence of realities [today] like "no healthcare" and "no money" means herbalism is a thing now, and the rise of visible transness and queerness is driving an interest in and connection with the "monstrous" and "otherness," because queer and trans people often identify with and reclaim otherness because otherness is imposed upon us.

Or, as articulated in Glyph form:

Their Future is Not Our Future,Their Future is Not Our Future text, Problem Glyphs, by Eliza Gauger, image courtesy of the artist.

From the ashes of the suburban dream, comes a new, networked generation, whose experiences are formed through careful, deliberate, artistic magic.


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